OMAHA, Neb. After making his first start of the year on the season’s biggest stage, after throwing a career-long 6 2/3 innings and matching a College World Series finals record with 10 strikeouts, senior Mike Morrison was pulled from the game and sent off the mound to a standing ovation and hugs from his teammates Tuesday night.
It would be hard to script a more fitting sendoff for a pitcher who has meant as much as anyone to Coastal Carolina on its magical run to this point, now one win away from a national championship.
“I put my heart and soul into this program for four years, man, and to end it like that, I mean, that was special,” Morrison said afterward. “That standing ovation was probably the coolest things that’s ever going to happen in my entire life.”
“Gave you chills, for sure,” senior teammates Anthony Marks chimed in.
“Goodness, it was special,” Morrison said. “That will definitely be the pinnacle of my career, I would say.”
And what a collegiate career it has been.
The senior closer from Gilbert High has mostly made his mark closing out big wins for Coastal Carolina (54-18) this season, but on Tuesday night with the Chanticleers facing potential elimination in the College World Series finals against Arizona, he was called upon to make just the third start of his career.
The first two – both last season – hadn’t gone so well, but he was incredible this time when the Chants needed it most.
Morrison managed to throw 103 pitches while holding Arizona (49-23) to just two runs on six hits and two walks over his 6 2/3 innings along with those 10 strikeouts.
He would ultimately get a no-decision, but there was no question he was the star of the game.
“This guy is the biggest bulldog I’ve ever met, and when he has the ball you just know we’re going to be in the game the whole way,” junior shortstop Michael Paez said. “... He’s honestly one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen in my life.”
One of the best to ever come through Coastal Carolina, for sure.
Morrison presumably finishes his senior season 8-1 with 11 saves, a 1.50 earned run average – the third-best single-season mark in the Chants’ Division I era – and 94 strikeouts with just 27 walks over 72 innings.
“To see where that young man came from to where he is today, and as good as a pitcher as he has been, in all honesty, his makeup and what he’s meant inside that locker room, out in the bullpen [is just as valuable,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “I mean, the numbers of young men he’s taken under his wing – I mean, I tease him all the time that whenever he finds the woman of his life and gets married, he’s going to be a better wife than she is. Because he does the laundry, he cooks. I mean, he’s unbelievable. ...
“Without him, I can tell you right now, this team as good as it is inside that locker room, without him ... he’s the biggest part of that, absolutely.”
Sophomore reliever Bobby Holmes, who pitched the final 2 1/3 innings to earn the win Tuesday night, said it was a special moment coming in for Morrison on the mound in that seventh inning.
“That guy’s the heart and soul of this team. He’s put everything he’s ever had into this team,” Holmes said. “When I came into the game, he was on the mound – he’s going to kill me – but he was shedding a couple tears. That’s the last time he’ll ever [pitch for Coastal Carolina], and to receive the ball from him is an incredible honor.”
Morrison, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 27th round earlier this month, had ERAs of 4.91 and 3.97 the last two seasons before morphing into one of the best relief pitchers in the country this spring.
And with the Chants’ season on the line and their pitching staff depleted, pitching coach Drew Thomas said there was only one choice to make Tuesday night.
“[There was] no question. If you’re going to go down, you’re going to go down with the guy that brought you,” Thomas said.
“Honestly, I thought he’d give us 80-85 solid [pitches], but I thought he was fine. His stuff was still good, and heck, I could have probably left him out there, but he deserved that ovation, to be honest with you. He deserved that ovation and it was beautiful to see.”
Morrison had also thrown 83 pitches out of the bullpen back on Thursday in a win over Texas Tech in another potential elimination game.
He joked Tuesday that he didn’t know what do as far as a pregame routine before this one as he hadn’t started since last year.
He was asked if he recalled that last start, May 1 of 2015 at Florida State.
“Oh yeah, I definitely do. That’s why everyone was joking with me in the locker room today,” he said. “I started at Florida State and I think I walked six and gave up seven earned or something like that. I thought I had good stuff that day too, that’s what’s funny about it. But I don’t know, on this stage there’s no time to lose. ... I’m out there telling myself every pitch, ‘I can’t let these guys down.’ ”
He had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the first before the Chants got the lead runner out on the base paths after what looked like a failed squeeze play, and he then got Arizona’s Bobby Dalbec to hit a grounder to third for a potential inning-ender. But the hard bouncing shot caromed off senior third baseman Zach Remillard as a run came round to score.
Morrison shook that off and cruised through the second and third innings before facing another jam in the fourth with runners on second and third with one out. After a meeting on the mound with Thomas, he answered back with strikeouts of Justin Behnke and Louis Boyd to escape unscathed.
He would allow a run in the fifth, but he stranded another runner on third there before striking out two in a 1-2-3 sixth and retiring the first two batters in the bottom of the seventh.
That’s when Thomas came out to take the ball from him and let him soak in the appreciation from the crowd.
“It hit me as soon as he started walking out there. I knew it was his third visit. I knew I was done. Dave [Parrett] was like, ‘You’re coming out.’ And I was like, ‘No, no I’m not,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re done,’ ” Morrison said. “And then I started choking up and crying a little bit. I’m an emotional guy. Coach Thomas was in my ear a little bit there, just saying some very nice, very kind words that really made me choke up. And then you see 25,000 people on their feet clapping I don’t know how you don’t get emotional when that happens. It was definitely the coolest thing that’s every happened in my life.”